Tuesday afternoon, Michael Acton Smith, CEO of Mind Candy, presented attendees at the GDC's Worlds in Motion summit with an interesting look at the confluence between real goods and virtual worlds. For some background on where Smith is coming from, Mind Candy "creates games and puzzles that span multiple media.... [they] use all forms of technology to tell stories and interact with... [their] audiences." They run Perplex City, an alternate reality game that uses clues puzzles in the real world combined with web-based resources to create a unique type of gameplay. Their upcoming game Moshi Monsters is an adoptable pet game geared towards kids. Smith says it's a "new type of virtual pet experience." The pets will be very alive with their own emotions (driven by a behavior engine which will cause your pet to act different ways depending on how you treat it) that will be reflected in the pet's animations. The game will also incorporate a number of social tools, so both you and your pet monster can hang out with friends. And, of course, there will be toys, oh glorious toys. (Some already available, though the game itself is still in beta and closed to the public.)





The toy industry in particular has embraced games with strong item tie-ins. Though gamers may not have noticed this trend, parents certainly have as games with their own stuffed animals and other toys have become more common. And the key to this particular type of game is to have physical items that provide some sort of in game benefit or perk (or in some cases, access to the game itself). Here at Massively, we find that we may not care much about the toys themselves but we must have them in order to further our gameplay. (Just don't ask us about our Neopets habit. Trust us, you don't want to know.) It is gaming's most vicious circle.


Webkinz is certainly the most popular of such games at present -- and though they don't officially release figures, it's estimated that they brought in some $40 million in 2007. Webkinz sells plush toys (not unlike Beanie Babies, a company that is also working on breaking into the online market) with a code. You can use the code on their website to get an online virtual version of the plush as a pet, which you can play with in the Webkinz virtual world. Like Beanie Babies, Webkinz "retires" their pets after a time, making retired pets rare and collectible.


The key to success with these games? They heavily engage the user. Instead of simply selling a toy and having that be the end of the transaction, these retailers bring the buyer into a virtual environment where (as with any immersive virtual world!) they're likely to spend some time. And, of course, tempt the player with future purchases, which will grant them additional privileges in the game.

Similar games include:
  • Build-a-Bearville -- where Build-a-Bear purchasers will be able to play in a virtual world
  • Shining Stars -- where Shining Stars toy purchasers can name a star, play online games, and send e-cards
  • BarbieGirls -- a virtual environment aimed at girls which has amassed 9.5 million users in a scant nine months; likely because it allows people to play whether they've bought anything or not (though toy purchasers get extra perks)
  • Be-Bratz -- very similar to BarbieGirls but with lower numbers; likely because you need to purchase a toy to play
  • Bella Sera -- horse-themed trading cards with inspirational messages and codes allowing access to Bella Sera's virtual world
  • Tamagotchi Town -- yes, the Tamagotchi hasn't died; instead, it has evolved into a virtual pet item which can communicate with others via infrared and allow its owner to participate in the virtual world of Tamatown
Some games tie-in using trading card games. These are games within themselves, but the cards include codes or other ways of granting users in-game perks. Both World of Warcraft and Maplestory have taken this route.


Instead of taking your real items into virtual worlds, some companies offer to take your virtual items and turn them into real items. Moo will make greeting cards, postcards, minicards, or stickers from Habbo Hotel characters or environments and Figureprints allows World of Warcraft players to make 3d printouts of your characters. (If you're curious about Figureprints, you may be interested in WoW Insider's interview with the Figureprints founder.)


But some retailers are blurring the lines between the real and the virtual even further by combining a digital (or virtual) data input with a physical object. Imagine if items like these had a tie-in to a virtual world!
  • Test Tube Aliens -- hold these toys up to your monitor where flashing lights on the Test Tube Aliens web site will cause them to respond in different ways. (If you're curious as to how this could possibly work, here's a video demonstration.)
  • Me2 -- a motion sensor that records physical activity which you gain game points for
  • Ambient products -- such as the Ambient Umbrella and the Ambient Orb, which will exhibit a physical response (i.e. a change in light color) to virtual data (for example, a weather report)
  • i-Buddy -- responds in various ways to MSN messages you receive (primarily based on emoticons)
  • Clothing -- for example, Thinkgeek's wifi detector shirt, which displays the strength of nearby wireless signals, or their dynamic life shirt, which displays your current "life" based on how close you are to another individual wearing the shirt
What games and virtual worlds are doing now is only scratching the surface of interactive possibilities. We're still waiting for the alarm clock (perhaps with matching desk lamp!) that communicates with our guild forums to get our attention when we're late for a raid.

This article was originally published on Massively.